This entry is part 3 of 13 in the series Notions of Horde

Billy headshot

By Billy

 

Lands. We all use them, we all need them, so frequently we can’t afford them. After a comment Mark made about the landbase I built for “The Charmander Vibrator,” I started thinking about budget lands in Commander. Of all the formats, we have the widest pool of playable lands available. This is due in part to the eternal nature of the format, though it’s really the singleton nature of the of the format that makes the second- and third-string lands much more playable than they are in formats where you can simply grab four of the best. Today, we’re going to dig deep into the bench and sort out just which of these lands make my 99, and which are staying on the JV team.

 

First Tier Mana-Fixing

Command Tower, Arid Mesa, Bayou, Hallowed Fountain

 

We can fight about the tier listings indefinitely in the comments, but this list is neither meant to be exhaustive, nor definitive; it’s merely a set of guidelines to illustrate my thoughts on lands in the format of Commander. I think these cycles are unanimously believed the best lands around, and I think I’ve already spent more words on them than I intended to. For the rest of the article I will assume that all but the Command Tower are unavailable.

 

Second Tier Mana-Fixing

Glacial Fortress, Arcane Sanctum, Graven Cairns, Celestial Colonnade, Cinder Glade, Darkwater Catacombs, Glimmervoid, Cavern of Souls, Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, Ancient Amphitheater

 

The second tier fixers tend to fall into two camps: dual lands that are reasonably likely to come in untapped, like Glacial Fortress, or lands that provide more than two colors at an acceptable price. The definition of “acceptable price” is ultimately subjective, but for my purposes we’re looking at cards that reward us for what our deck is already doing. Tri-lands meet my acceptable price because their only drawback is that they come in tapped. Three-color decks get all their colors from them and at no cost outside of that initial tempo hit, and I believe that’s well worth spending an ETB-tapped land slot on.

 

Cavern of Souls, Glimmervoid and others like them carry drawbacks that are negligible in the decks that’ll want them. Tribal decks flock to Cavern of Souls, making it not a truly budget choice, but artifact-themed decks can run as many colors as they want of Glimmervoid and Ancient Amphitheater is essentially a free dual in Giant-tribal. If you have a strong theme in your deck, you may be able to find lands designed to play up those themes, and many of them are cheap due to the reduced demand.

 

For the generalist, second tier lands such as the “Check-Land” cycle was a core set staple for years. The enemy-colored ones are on the higher end of what could be considered budget, due to only having one real printing compared to the four printings the allied cycle saw. If you’re looking to build many decks, or if Cromat has claimed your soul, you ought to be able to get the allied colors at a good rate and in great volume. The new dual lands from Battle For Zendikar are questionable in this tier. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt due to my belief that they will come into play untapped far more frequently than Blackcleave Cliffs. These may turn out to be tier three, but if you can wait until they leave Standard you ought to get them cheap.

 

The “Filter lands,” like Graven Cairns, are very good in their respective two-color decks, though they’re not as great in three-color decks due to being unable to filter the third color. They are quite good, but also quite expensive, and therefore not budget choices. If someone can give me a reasonable explanation for why lands that see no competitive play are so expensive I’d like to hear it (though not as much as I would love to see them reprinted).

 

Celestial Colonnade is here representing the best of the dual-color creature-lands. In my opinion, the best “manlands” are the ones that best fit the game plan of the deck you’re building. Blue/White decks love to skew toward Control and love having a finisher in a land slot, while simultaneously not caring much that their land came in tapped. Honestly, Colonnade didn’t need to be a Serra Angel to be good. It could’ve been a 2/3 flier and it’d still be close to the top of the list simply because these colors like having manlands so much. The same holds for Creeping Tar Pit as well. I’ll leave it to the comments to debate where the rest of the cycle should be placed. I’ll only mention a couple in the next tier, with the assumption that they all float somewhere between the tiers.

 

Third Tier Mana-Fixing

Azorius Chancery, Ancient Ziggurat, Adarkar Wastes, Akoum Refuge, Calciform Pools, Lumbering Falls , City of Brass, Terramorphic Expanse, Crosis’s Catacombs, Vivid Creek, Tainted Peak, Temple of Abandon, Port Town

 

The third-stringers are the bread and butter of this singleton format, and where the most and best budget options can be found. This is the tier of tapped lands with some upside, untapped lands with noticeable downsides, and weaker manlands. Most of these cards either overperform for their monetary cost, or are simply better than nothing at fixing your colors. These are the cards that you’ll rarely brag about owning; they’re not sexy, but they do the job well enough so that you never feel bad about running them in your two-color decks to make fixing quotas, or in three-color decks if you care about getting the most play value for your dollar. There is no shame in these lands.

 

The Ravnica bounce lands perfectly illustrate this tier. They’re typically bulk (or close to it) and they get you two colors of mana! Not a choice between two colors, just both! Well worth coming into play tapped, they also count almost as two lands for mulligan purposes. I tend to run as many as my color identity and collection will allow. Similarly, the various gain lands from Khans and Zendikar are lands that come in tapped, but offer a little bit more than just tapping for two colors. One life isn’t much, but it’s better than a Gate for most decks, and you need to play something to fix your mana, anyway.

 

Vivid lands have the ability to tap for mana of any color, but only twice; after they’re out of counters, they’re no better than basics. They come in tapped, so they fall into this category as their upside is that they’re essentially bad tri-lands. They tap for up to three colors, but not always. That makes them worth it to me as a budget stopgap land, especially when filling out multicolor lists with just enough color-fixing to get to that next land drop. Terramorphic Expanse barely squeaks in at this tier. A bad fetchland that gets any basic is perfectly fine, especially if you care about land and/or graveyard themes. Life From The Loam is its best friend.

 

Filling out the “Enters tapped, But. . .” lands are the Scry lands. This cycle of temples from Theros block enter tapped, but let you Scry 1 when they enter play. These lands give a little bit of card selection at the cost of a bit of tempo. I usually don’t mind the tempo loss much, and love having utility from my lands, so I’m a big fan. I think they’re tier three, because to me the Scry isn’t enough to push them up to the next level, but I think they’re close to the top of this tier. Tier 2 just requires more.

 

Lower-end manlands fall into this tier, too. I put Lumbering Falls here partly because I just don’t like it. A Hill Giant isn’t often worthwhile in this format of haymakers, and hexproof loses a lot of value when Swords and such fall off at the end of the turn. I will admit this card really overperformed for my wife at the OGW prerelease, but your mileage may vary for this and the other dual lands, even if I think there’s enough variance in this cycle that some fall into this category.

 

Port Town and the new “Shadow lands” from Shadows over Innistrad are getting put here for the time being. These may move up or down in my esteem, based on playtime and discussions, but right now I think they’re a little better than Blackcleave Cliffs and the rest of the “Scar Lands” cycle. Judging from this article by Frank Karsten, math seems to agree. I know it’s a lot of numbers, but there’s some really good rules of thumb at the end that apply pretty well to 100-card formats as well.

 

 

Leading the  “Untapped Lands with Noticeable Downside” category are the Lairs. Crosis’s Catacombs and friends are untapped tri-lands that require you to return a non-Lair land to your hand. This is a noticeable tempo hit, taking you behind a land for the rest of the game, but sometimes that’s worth it. These are probably the worst of this category, but I think they reach tier three simply by being a tri-land, as there aren’t many of those.

 

Pain lands like Adarkar Wastes and City of Brass get in because they come in untapped. Don’t ignore the pain, because the pain is real. Games run long in Commander, and a mana base with too many of these lands can easily deal ten damage to itself over the course of a game. Even with 40 life, that hurts. Adarkar Wastes and company are better than City of Brass, because you have the option of not hurting yourself, and now with Kozilek’s brood running amok the colorless mana ability can actually have some upside.

 

Calciform Pools and the other Storage lands come in untapped, but can only tap for colored mana with a bit of an investment. These aren’t the best lands, but they’re a great place to bank leftover mana for a future X spell or that “One Big Turn.” Don’t rely on these for your primary fixing, but I think these are surprisingly powerful, especially if you’re one of those players that holds up mana for instants that they never cast.

 

Ancient Ziggurat is the only one of its kind in tier 3, but this is a land that puts a requirement on the mana you get from it. These lands are only as good as their restriction, so this Ziggurat’s value is directly tied to the number of creatures in your deck. I think there’s enough non-creature spells most decks will want to be playing that not everyone can play this without taking a noticeable hit to consistency, but creature decks with high color requirements like Allies or Slivers will find it to be almost a second Command Tower.

 

Finishing up the “Untapped Lands with Noticeable Downside” category is the Tainted cycle. Tainted Peak and friends have one glaring, un-avoidable requirement: play Black. Lots of Black. These lands won’t tap for any color unless you control a swamp. They’re like the evil twins of the Check land cycle from tier 2. On the plus side, they come in untapped, can tap for colorless if necessary, and are really awesome following a turn one Swamp.

 

The great thing about lands in this tier is that they tend to be inexpensive, easily available, and still playable enough that you don’t feel like you desperately need to upgrade them. For deckbuilding addicts like me, these tend to make up the bulk of mana bases simply because there are plenty lying around. For newer players, these are the lands you tend to find in Commander precon decks, and there’s a good reason for that. They don’t inflate the value of the decks (so Legacy players poach them) and they provide more than serviceable fixing. Fourth tier lands tend to be my placeholder lands until I can replace them with one of these.

 

Fourth Tier Mana-Fixing

Azorius Guildgate, Bad River, Blackcleave Cliffs, Boreal Shelf, Coastal Tower, Exotic Orchard, Karoo, Mirrodin’s Core, Pillar of the Paruns, Transguild Promenade, Bant Panorama

 

Most of these can be summed up by saying that Lands that enter tapped should give you some bonus. That said, don’t feel bad running these guys. They’re the bottom of the barrel, but at least they’re in the barrel, not laying in the street. Many of these have simply been obsolesced over time. As more options have become available these have slid slowly out of  favor. Transguild Promenade is like a bad mana rock that doesn’t accelerate you, but you can use it. It gets included in precon decks for a reason. It smooths mana, while also teaching players valuable lessons about tempo and resource-building. However, I guarantee that after having it in a few opening hands you’ll be looking to be rid of it. Stick it in a mana rock slot instead of a land slot and you should be OK. It’ll keep your mana fixed until your next paycheck. That applies to most of these lands, but the weird ones will get some explanation.

 

I hate Blackcleave Cliffs and friends in Commander. I think they’re perfectly fine in 60-card formats, but in a world where you can’t assume you will see one in your first three turns, they may as well be Guildgates. If you have any reason why this cycle should be moved up to a higher tier, please write in the comments. My playgroup has utterly abandoned these lands for our 100-card decks, but maybe we’re wrong.

 

Speaking of Guildgates… they’re not great. They’re better than Coastal Tower, but that’s only in decks that care about the Gate subtype. Off the top of my head I can think of Cromat /Maze’s End as a deck that cares, but aside from that, they’re lands that come in tapped–all the time–and with no upside. That’s not good, but it’s not the worst of things. I use them in deck skeletons, rough drafts, and two-color decks that have to go deep for fixing. They’re always the first on the chopping block when I acquire more real estate, though.

 

I have a love/hate relationship with Exotic Orchard. It’s a rainbow land that comes in untapped, but it also gives your opponents creatures, and I don’t like giving out free stuff. I actually run it in my Charmander Vibrator deck to provide Thraximundar fodder, but I’m not even sure that’s a good use for it. I still can’t believe it got an expedition printing.

 

Mirrodin’s Core and Bant Panorama are just too slow to be helpful. The Panoramas have a bit too much set up cost for my taste, and Mirrodin’s Core is just a bit better than the Kamigawa “Slow lands” I’ll mention in the next tier down. Again, they’re not unplayable, but they’re strange and unwieldy.

 

Pillar of the Paruns is another card that creates restricted mana. In this case, the restriction is that it can only be used to cast multicolor spells. Now, I want everyone to grab their two closest Commander decks and count the number of multicolor cards in each, and then ask yourself how many multicolor spells you would need to feel comfortable with in order to run a land that only works for multicolored spells. I’m sure someone has done some very nice math on it, but I want your opinions. My number is very high. Like 50+ multicolor cards. Opinions that extreme are often wrong, but I really hate when I can’t use my lands.

 

The Just-Run-Basics Tier

Cloudcrest Lake, Castle Sengir, Forsaken City, Gemstone Caverns Geothermal Crevice, Meteor Crater, Land Cap, Pine Barrens, Rainbow Vale, Rhystic Cave, Shimmering Grotto, Tarnished Citadel, Undiscovered Paradise

 

These are the cards I will never play. Never, ever. Most of these I expect will have universal agreement, while one or two may see some argument. I may very well be wrong. I doubt it, though. Please, please run basic lands instead of these. Please don’t ever put these in your list.

 

Cloudcrest Lake is our representative from the Kamigawa Slow lands. Like Land Cap, this is a land you can only use every other turn. Why would you do this to yourself? It’s so much better that the land just come in tapped once, and then was free to use after. I have no idea when you would run this over a basic land. I wouldn’t even play this in Sealed. I’d never spend a draft pick on it. it shouldn’t ever be in any Constructed format, ever. I know this from painful experience.

 

I was 14 when Kamigawa came out, and I legitimately believed I had outsmarted all the pro-players by running these instead of Pain lands, because my lands didn’t hurt me. This lasted a week. You want to be able to cast your spells. I couldn’t. Forsaken City is the big brother of these cycles. It costs you both tempo and cards! It is the worst. Undiscovered Paradise is like a rainbow vomit cousin of these. It manages to keep you from either casting spells or playing lands. Admittedly, it’s better than Forsaken City, but this has no place in Commander. We’re not that desperate.

 

Castle Sengir and Shimmering Grotto are here to represent the “color fixes at a net loss” section. Don’t play these, either. You don’t need it that bad. No one plays Opal Palace purely to fix mana. It eats tempo in much the same way that the Depletion lands do; sometimes you just have less mana than you should have. Castle Sengir is hilariously inefficient. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to use this as fixing.

 

Now for some quick hits to finish off the section: Geothermal Crevice is not color fixing. It’s a weird off-color ritual that gets you one mana. Not terrible, just not actual color fixing. If you’re in the market for a ritual, this is one (sorta). Run Tarnished Citadel if you think City of Brass is too good. Rhystic Cave gives all your opponents a free Rishadan Port that targets you. Rainbow Vale might be niche in Zedruu the Greathearted, but no one else wants it. Pine Barrens has all the downsides of Guildgates and Painlands, with none of the upsides. Gemstone Caverns has been a 60-card all-star, but 100-card decks mean this is basically Wastes. Meteor Crater is the ultimate feel-bad card. Do you know this won’t tap for mana if you have no creatures on the board? It’s not your friend, but a great example of a “Best Case Scenario” mentality trap. [Editor’s note: Billy should be praised for not making the obvious “Magical Christmas Land” pun here, because I surely would have.]

 

So, that’s my real estate opus. I hope some of you enjoyed it. I hope that some of you read to the end. I hope there’s a large overlap between those groups, too. Hopefully Grandpa Growth made it to the end, as I’d love to hear his thoughts on the subject of these tiers, and hopefully spark some discussion in the comments. Let me know what you think. I hope someone finds this helpful..

 

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